FC Barcelona showed that it guards the title of champion jealously as it bounced back from a first Euroleague home loss in years to positively rock Panathinaikos 66-84 in Group F on Thursday to celebrate Dejan Bodiroga's return to Athens. Barca moved into a first-place tie with a 2-1 record and dropped Panathinaikos to 1-2. The local fans who toasted Bodiroga before the game had little to cheer about after halftime, when Barca his 7 third-quarter three-pointers to run away with the decision. Juan Carlos Navarro led the Barca barrage with 25 points in 28 minutes. He made 4 of 5 two-pointers, 4 of 6 threes and 5 of 5 free throws for the winners. Vlado Ilievski was almost more perfect, missing only a pair of three-pointers on his way to 18 points. Anderson Varejao added a double-double of 12 points and 10 rebounds, while Bodiroga chipped in 10 points and 5 assists. Panathinaikos was led by Mike Batiste with 14 points in 17 minutes. Arriel McDonald added 13 points, Jaka Lakovic 12 and Fragiskos Alvertis 10 for the Greens.
The return of Bodiroga was the main event before tipoff, as the Barcelona forward was playing his first game against Panathinaikos since having led the Greens to the 2002 Euroleague title. As evidence of how much they miss him, fans waited at the Sporting Hall entrance to welcome him. When he entered the arena, Bodiroga went to the Panathinaikos locker room to great his ex-teammates, coaches and staff, while the fans got prepared for his appearance by singing songs and hanging banners, one of which expressed the general sentiment: "You are one of us!" Panathinaikos honored Bodiroga with gifts presented to him in a ceremony at midcourt. But when the game started, the Greens stopped being nice and defended in a zone meant to deny Bodiroga the chance to play his classic one-on-one game. Bodiroga scored his first points anyway after 2 minutes to tie the score at 5-5. Barcelona took advantage of the zone with 2 early three pointers, by Rodrigo De La Fuente and Ilievski. De La Fuente scored another basket for a five-point gap, 7-12, but Kostas Tsartsaris and Jaka Lakovic led Panathinaikos to within 11-12 and to 15-14. At the end of the first quarter, Barcelona was still one point ahead, 17-18.
With Ilievski and Navarro in the backcourt and twin towers Patrick Femerling and Roberto Dueñas down low, Barcelona made a 15-4 run to a 21-33 advantage early in the second quarter. The damage was done by consecutive three-pointers from Navarro as Barca based its game on excellent balance and passing game. Bodiroga returned to the court as "point forward", a role he played for four years in Panathinaikos, but now came the Greens' turn to react. Alvertis and Lakovic buries big triples of their own and brought the Greens to within 4 points, 31-35, after 16 minutes. Alvertis, playing at power forward, joined with McDonald, Lakovic and Nikos Hatziverettas in a small lineup that played smart defense, denying Bodiroga to drive from the right side. The result was a 12-0 Panathinaikos run good for a 35-35 tie after 18 minutes. With Dueñas back on the court, Barca shot ahead 37-40, but Mike Batiste came up big to nail 4 fast points for 41-40 Panathinaikos lead at the half.
Batiste kept on fire after halftime, opening a 46-42 Panathinaikos advantage, but the Greens would not enjoy it for long. Ilievski stepped up and made 2 consecutive three-pointers to put Barca ahead again, 46-48, then Navarro copied him with another pair of shots from downtown. Bodiroga was well-guarded by Hatzivrettas, but Barcelona had alternatives thanks to its domination under the boards and the fastbreak opportunities that came from it. Alvertis hit a three-pointer to keep the Greens as close as 49-52, but Navarro was on fire, whether scoring or drawing fouls and shooting free throws. But Barca wasn't done its shooting display. De La Fuente made the next one from beyond the arc, and then Navarro hit a really big triple to beat the 24-second clock for a double-digit Barca lead, 49-60. Finally, big man Anderson Varejao closed out the quarter as his teammates had done throughout, with a triple on the buzzer to put the Euroleague champions ahead by 14 points, 51-65, after 30 minutes.
There were no great changes in the fourth quarter, as Barcelona kept dominating. Panathinaikos coach Zeljko Obradovic tried to add more energy and quickness to his team, but Barcelona didn't panic and took advantage of the mismatches, like Bodiroga against Giorgios Kalaitzis and De La Fuente against McDonald. Ilievski scored for a 15-point gap, 56-71, after 35 minutes. In the last minutes Bodiroga played the point again and Navarro continued to burn brightly, nailing another big triple for 64-77. The hosts didn't have enough fuel to their deposit to try for a comeback and Barca got not only a clear and fair victory to keep a piece of first place, but an 18-point difference to save for potential ties in the future.
Thursday, March 18, 2004
Vassilis Skountis, Athens